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How Much Good Does the Official Lottery Do?

The state-run lottery is a popular form of gambling in America. It raises a substantial amount of money for governments, and many people believe that playing the lottery is an act of civic duty or philanthropy. But how much good does it really do? Is it fair to gamble on a chance of winning big money?

Lotteries have been around in some form for centuries, but in 1964 the first modern state-run lottery was launched in New Hampshire. At the time, it was widely believed that the proceeds would go to schools. The lottery sprang from a time of great fiscal crisis in America. In the early nineteen-twentieth century, states faced rising costs for social safety nets and resentment over taxes. Cohen writes that America was “defined politically by a deep aversion to taxation,” and it became common for politicians to promote lottery games as a way to fund public services without raising taxes.

In fact, lotteries have been a kind of budgetary miracle for many states, offering lawmakers the opportunity to create revenue seemingly out of thin air without having to face voters’ wrath over higher levies. And even when lottery revenues do get funneled to public services, they end up largely benefiting middle- and upper-class areas and school districts far from the poor neighborhoods where the tickets are sold. In the words of one researcher, “The lottery is a kind of grift, where the poor are collateral damage.” (Story by Christopher Benoit; Photo by John Moore)